As one of the Mainland’s original punk bands, SMZB has overcome everything from banned albums to tapped phones to confused audiences completely new to the genre. Over 18 years, they’ve not only survived, but thrived – continuing to “scream for freedom and rights, dignity and family.” They’ve already galvanized their Wuhan hometown into a hotbed of underground rock, while slaying crowds across the country as part of their A Letter from China national tour.
With lyrics like “I sing for the pain that’s been inflicted in society/Exposing the scars of history,” SMZB frontman Wu Wei is part of a long line of political punk provocateurs akin to Joe Strummer and Jello Biafra.
For all his outspokenness on record, he’s surprisingly nonchalant about the challenges of leading one of the Mainland’s most notorious bands.
“We’ve carried on fine for 18 years,” he says. “If there’s a problem, then we will fix it. That’s just part of life.”
No VPN? Watch SMZB's 15 Years of Rebellion anniversary show at VOX on Youku.
Although their albums continue to only be available at their live shows, with sets occasionally curtailed by nervous club managers and overzealous officials, Wu’s indifference is well-earned. The band just released one of the year’s best Mainland albums and is playing to excited crowds across the country, including a January 10 show at Yuyintang.
Despite their standing as one of China’s most unique bands, SMZB’s formation follows the classic punk origin story: Boys love classic rockers like The Doors; boys discover punk’s holy trinity of the Sex Pistols, The Clash and The Ramones; boys immediately start a band.
In this case, the boys were Wu and original drummer Zhu Ning. After wrapping up studies at the Beijing MIDI School of Music, the two returned to Wuhan in 1996 to start SMZB, which can be translated as ‘The Bread of Life.’
“Our first show was at a disco with all local bands,” Wu recalls. “There was everything from pop bands to cover bands, but we were the only punk band. The show turned out great and our name began to be discussed a lot within music circles.”
Soon after, college students started to form likeminded bands, kick starting Wuhan’s famed music scene. National media began dubbing the collective the ‘Wuhan Riot Group,’ taken aback by their DIY attitude and in-your-face music style.
“We found our own venues and booked college tours in other cities all by ourselves. At the time, most bands just moved to Beijing and didn’t tour,” Wu says.
That commitment to Wuhan has paid of. While Zhu no longer drums with the band, he founded and directs the city’s premier livehouse VOX. Wu also remains modest, describing his life as “working at a small bar to pay the bills and using the rest of my free time on the band.”
It’s a classic understatement. That small bar he works at is Wuhan Prison (official name: Folkland), which doubles as a second-hand clothing store, record label and VOX afterparty hangout. Founded and managed by Wu, it’s a haven for students, bands, artists and foreign teachers.
Known around town as the ‘Boss of Wuhan,’ Wu remains a guiding force for a scene that continues to churn out new generations of domestic rockers like Chinese Football. Despite the city’s fabled reputation as China’s punk capital, Wu sadly notes that “there’s only two punk bands in Wuhan now, and one of them is us.”
No VPN? Listen to SMZB on Xiami.
Although their descendants may have moved onto other styles, SMZB continues to fiercely wave the punk flag on A Letter from China. On the album opener, Wu posits the band as heirs to legendary Chinese fighter pilot Chen Huaimen, screaming “we picked up the guitar, as you steer the battle jet/We will keep on fighting, never give up.”
Split between English and Mandarin tracks, Wu continues to rail against society, the government and other institutions. Musically, the band has been bolstered by the addition of a banjo player. The six-piece, which also features bagpipes, tin whistle and violin, authentically mine Celtic-punk in the vein of The Pogues filtered through Dropkick Murphys.
While the album’s a sterling addition to SMZB’s discography, Wu warns that the band has even more fire in their arsenal.
“I like our new album,” he says demurely. “But we will record a new record next year called The Chinese is Coming that I really love.”
// Jan 10, 8.30-11.30, RMB50. Yuyintang.